09th November 1997


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Who says there is no war in Colombo?

By Farrah Mihlar

Cordon and search operations in residential areas, raids on neighbourhoods are constant occurrences in the past few months. It isn't difficult to imagine the tension, the fear when it is dark and the police knock at your door and say they want to search your house.

"How must a mother feel when they tell her they have to take her son in for questioning and she has no idea what will happen to him," says Dr. Ratnavale an eminent psychiatrist.

The psychological impact on such people is obviously intense. "People can invade your privacy, strip you, take you away, you aren't going to say I am not going to open the door for you" he says.

Once arrested Tamil people end up being detained for days because of their inability to communicate with the authorities. "Police officers can't understand what they are saying and they become more suspicious" says Mr. Sidharthan.

Sometimes, the anxiety comes in ordinary situations. A political observer relates a story of a boy who won a lottery ticket and was asked to produce his ID to claim the prize.

When this was done and the lottery seller discovered he was a Tamil the boy was unmercifully harassed to the extent that he was willing to sacrifice the money for peace of mind.

Despite efforts to rid discrimination of our society, it is growing by the day. People often express their reluctance to rent houses to Tamils or employ Tamil servants. All this stems from the war.

It is with common consensus they say they feel "bitter" about the situation. "Disgust" "Fed up" "Marginalized" "discriminated" and "helpless" are just a few words to describe their plight. "People who think this is their home, how must they feel" says Ratnavale.

"Why?" they ask in frustration. They are angry and lost but few blame the military. It is understood that security arrangements are needed to protect the city which have been a common target of terrorist attacks.

The only answer that can be offered to them is deduced through pure logic - the LTTE fights the army, the LTTE consists of Tamils so Tamils have to be questioned.

It is not only Tamils that suffer though they may feel the impact more than others but that does not mean the others aren't feeling it . "Everybody is under suspicion irrespective of whether you are a Tamil or a Sinhalese. A Tamil must suffer more but Sinhalese also don't like it" says Dr. Ratnavale.

No one likes to be searched or stopped at a checkpoint. That is an obvious fact. If there was a route that would be void of check points it would be natural for any human being to take that route.

Checkpoints are hazardous, a nuisance. More than anything they are a violation of ones privacy. "No one likes to be checked. You don't like being asked who you are, where you are going? Its none of their business" says Dr. Ratnavale. while relating how people feel about checkpoints. It is an assault upon a person's psyche, they don't obviously feel it but internally their reaction is one of fear," he explains.

May be a Tamil is more anxious when stopped at a checkpoint because his chances of being arrested are higher but even a Sinhalese could take offence". "He may say I am a patriotic Sinhalese, why should they harass me" he says. The entire scenario has created a crisis with regard to proving one's identity.

Whatever race you may belong to, it has suddenly become important that you prove who you are. ID cards have become an obsession. An ID card is essential to prove a person's race and place of birth, because as Dr. Ratnavale explains Sri Lankan features are all alike. If you strip a person of his clothes it would be almost impossible to distinguish between a Sinhalese and a Tamil . This is the sad irony that despite being so alike there is such a strong need to prove a difference. A difference few like to acknowledge.

It is not just the check point or the search operation that brings the war to Colombo. It is the overall atmosphere that lingers in the environment, the exposure.

Even little children have to suffer due to the gruesome results of the war. Most people would like to avoid a suspected LTTE target just like so many people avoided going to the twin towers and most employees object having to work in commercial areas which are rumoured to be vulnerable venues.

It does not have to be a specific place. If people had the choice they would avoid going anywhere because of the uncertainty that you can be in any part of Colombo and be blasted to pieces.

There is always a sense of tension, parents don't send their children to school on the slightest rumour. Adults stay away from work, roads are deserted and the slightest noise triggers panic and fear.

"Everyone in Colombo is scared like hell, not just the person in the bus but even the politician in the luxury car, says Dr. Ratnavale.

The positive aspect is that all these emotions linger at the back of our minds. This is why the streets are always busy and the shops always full. People in Colombo don't give into their fears.

Dr. Ratnavale says in psychology this is classified as Denial- not accepting the reality of the situation. "It is the best way to survive," he says This is why life goes back to normal after a bomb blast.

This is because the people in Colombo are suppressing their fears and worries and are attempting to paint a picture of normality. "It is being put off and may build up in some people more than others" says Dr. Ratnavale. He warns however that normalcy should not cease on the belief that everyone's suppressed fears are going to explode some day.

Dr. Ratnavale explains that as a result of the entire war scenario becoming a reality to those in Colombo essentially there are two things happening. Firstly, people in Colombo are getting used to more necessary evils.

"School children having to show their bags to guards, metal detectors at shopping complexes, vehicles being searched, having to carry ID cards and police reports are some of the necessary evils that have crept into our lives and the people in Colombo are silently accepting them. "We can cope with it now, but life can become impossible" he says.

The second and more fearful result of the present situation is that people are now becoming more racially distinct. As a result of having to constantly prove one's identity people are becoming more divided and polarised as Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims.

Soldier"Suddenly you are asking yourself who you are. He explains the Americans anywhere will be identified as Americans. In the past there was some kind of national identity. Everyone was known as Ceylonese but today the national identity is overshadowed by one's race.

The mistakes are conveniently being passed on to the younger generation. Children in Colombo are also becoming aware of the war. They identify each other racially and they feel the uncertainty and fear. Dr. Ratnavale says there are parents who scare their children by war situations while there are others who transfer their personal fears to their children. Either way, the children will suffer mentally.

The media he says does little justice to the situation. Pictures of dilapidated bodies flashed across the media ticks in the minds of little children. The effects can even be witnessed in adults. In his work with victims of the Central Bank bomb blast he discovered that some people didn't eat meat after seeing flesh while others needed to sleep with a light on.

There are many suggestions put forward to overcome this situation. But how effective they will be are doubtful. It is believed that having counsellors at work places and schools will help people come to terms with their fears.

There are many people who have lost loved ones due to the war, others who have been trapped in violence and even some who have had to identify their friends at the morgue.

These people are all hurting inside and need to overcome their fears. In easing the inconveniences caused to Tamil people, politicians suggest the setting up of a citizens committee to monitor arrest in Colombo.

They have also called on the police and armed forces to make a bigger effort to study the Tamil language while importance has also been laid creating a more multi ethnic force.

But none of these measures will change anything. It may ease the situation slightly but check points will still be effected, search operations will continue and ID cards will always be checked There is no option, it is done in the best of intentions to protect the Capital city and its people.

The forces too have made an effort. Women have been deployed at check points and they have gained a reputation of making an effort to be polite and courteous. But this does not erase the psychological effect the entire situation has on the people of Colombo.

Prof. Ratnavale talks of how people on the roads look straight ahead and walk. They don't like to get involved in any- thing any more. They don't even turn to smile at others. It's like they are saying 'I don't want people to see me. Please ignore me'.

The evidence is before us though we do not see it. The increasing number of suicides, the increase in drug addiction, broken families, rise in alcohol and tobacco consumption and social unrest go to prove the point.

Those living in Colombo may be much better off than those in the war front, but they too are suffering, suffering in silence. In Ratnavale's own words "though we think we are used to it we are still hurting inside".

Reality of war and our ignorance

It is a fallacy to think that those who do not live away from the North and East of this country are not affected by the ongoing war. The general notion amongst politicians, businessmen and the general public is that the war is confined to the North and East. Apart from an occasional bomb blast the general belief is that the closest we get to the war is via the media.

Soldiers, refugees and civilians living in the war zone are not the only victims. It isn't always obvious but people living hundreds of miles away from the fighting are also suffering the consequences. Without our knowledge those of us who live in Colombo and its suburbs are quietly being exposed to the reality of the war. And the intriguing fact is our ignorance of it.

In the past 14 years the war has constantly been echoing in the ears of Sri Lankans. It has created hundreds of orphans, thousands of widows and tens of thousands of people who have no place called home. It is true that the people in Colombo aren't woken up to the sounds of shelling or don't step on a land mine while walking to a neighbours house. Children here play cricket on the roads unlike their friends in the North. The Youth "Party", and go night clubbing and they aren't taken away from their homes to fight in the battle front. But what is not known is that despite this image of normalcy people in Colombo feel the impact of the war more than they can imagine. There is a great sense of fear amongst the millions of people who come to Colombo every day. The trauma they suffer is something new but is breeding in our every day environment.

In the past few years the war has come closer to Colombo. Public roads have suddenly been closed down, checkpoints have emerged in every nook and corner and military personnel uniformed and armed can hardly be escaped, all in the name of intensified security, and amidst all this the city still ticks, the streets still bustle. The traffic chokes, and children are laughing. What are we complaining about?

"We feel the lack of freedom to move around as free citizens all because we have a Tamil name," says Kumudini Shamugalingam a young executive. She still carries her old identity card which bears her maiden name which was a Christian name. Tamils in Colombo constantly complain about being antagonized by everyone. Even if they have no links with the LTTE, they are often branded as terrorists.

"Younger children are extremely scared, they can be stopped anywhere checked and taken into custody" says Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam of the Tamil United Liberation Front. Tamil parties in the past have had several discussions on the subject. They acknowledge the need for security restrictions, but question the unfair treatment. "We can understand that although all Tamils aren't LTTErs all LTTEr's are Tamils" says one official "but the question is where do you draw the line" he adds. The complaints are continuous. Mothers live in fear that their young sons may be arrested in any place in the city. 'Last night I was stopped at a check point, they asked me are you a Tamil. They asked me to produce a police report. I have lived all my life in Colombo and never seen the colour of Jaffna and now I need a police report to prove that" says Harikeshan Gangeshan a former Radio presenter. It is common to have to answer questions at checkpoints but Tamils complain they have to answer an 'extra dose'. Similarly they say their chances of being arrested at a checkpoint is far greater than that of others. "I understand to a certain extent the security concerns but not this indiscriminate arresting of people" says the leader of the Peoples Liberation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) Mr. Sidharthan.

If they are not taken away at a checkpoint then they are detained after a search operation.

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